Fillet means to produce a boneless cut and when it comes to Northern Pike, that’s a challenge.
There are two ways to go about creating boneless fillets of Northern pike, and we will go over them both.
How to Fillet a Northern Pike – Option 1
This method produces five cuts of meat, and while it works, it feels like it wastes a lot of the fish.
Step 1 – Stand the fish up so that the belly of the pike is on the table and the spine is in the air.
Step 2 – Make a downward cut at the base of the neck down to the spine but not through the bones.
Step 3 – Make a downward cut at the beginning of the dorsal fin down to the spine but not through the bones.
Step 4 – Place the knife into the slit at the back of the head and then turn it horizontal with the blade facing the dorsal fin.
Step 5 – Cut along the top of the spine until you meet the cut at the dorsal fin. You want to cut along the bones but not through them. When done, you produce a boneless fillet of the back of the fish.
Step 6 – Turn the fish on its side with the backbone facing you. Follow the same cut you made behind the head on the back down the side of the fish and repeat that at the dorsal cut too.
Step 7 – Look at the exposed flesh from the first cut. You can see the Y-bones. Insert the tip of your knife above the Y-bones and make a horizontal slit down the row of Y-bone. At this point, you would fillet the pike like you would any other fish.
Step 8 – Slide from the cut above the Y-bones down and over the ribs. The last stroke is to cut the skin at the belly.
Step 9 – Filleting the tail section – Insert the tip of the knife into the flesh of the fish and slide along the remaining top of the backbones. If you work at a slight angle, while lifting the fillet, the knife will slide right along the backbone, down to the bottom of the fish, and through the tail skin.
Repeat steps 8 and 9 for the other side of the fish. The only thing left to do is to skin the fillets if desired.
Step 10 – Holding your knife at an angle so that the blade sits between the flesh and the skin, you cut along the top of the skin but not through it. The tough skin will guide the knife blade down its surface and the fillet will separate cleanly from the skin.
It is always a good idea to check the fillets for small bits of bone, especially for those dreaded Y-bone tips. You can use a small pair of pliers to remove any small bones.
Method #2 of Filleting a Northern Pike
Step 1 – Cut off the pectoral fins – you will feel that there is a little set of bones here, and you want to remove those too.
Step 2 – Starting at the head, you want to make a cut that begins to separate the head from the body of the fish. Make your cut behind the gill structure and along the throat of the fish. Round the cut up until you feel the backbone – do not cut through the backbone. Instead, continue the cut over the top of the backbone and around the other side of the fish. The cut finishes where it began at the throat. At this point, the backbone is the only thing holding the head on the fish.
Step 3 – Make a cut along the belly of the fish from the throat to the anal opening. This will help to separate the two fillets.
Step 4 – Flip the fish over so that the backbone is facing you. Begin to make a shallow cut using the tip of your knife along the top of the backbone. The cut ranges from the neck cut to the dorsal fin.
Step 5 – Using your thumb lift the cut and continue to run the tip of your knife along the top of the bones and ribs. As you do, lift the meat and just flick the tip of your knife along the top of the bones. The fillet will begin to slide off the bones. Continue until the fillet is free of the fish. Repeat this step on the other side of the fish. You will end up with two very long fillets that still have the Y-bones in them.
Step 6 – Position the fillet so that you can see the Y-bones. Cut along the lateral line that you see in the fillet. Lift with the thumb of your free hand and run the knife along the top of the Y-bones. You fillet out the entire Y-bone section just like you did the fillet in step 5. Repeat that process for the other side of the fish.
Step 7 – Remove the dorsal fin from the fillets, and you are finished.
Here is a video explaining the five-piece method of cleaning the Northern Pike:
- When cutting along the ribs, use the tip of the knife. Angle the knife so that it slides over the ribs but not into the meat. As you do, the fillet will slide off the ribs.
- Practice the Angles of your blade – When skinning the fillets, hold the knife at an angle so that the blade presses into the skin but not through it. As you slide the knife over the skin, the meat will come off the skin in a single piece and there should be no meat left on the skin. If there is meat left on the skin, the angle of the blade was off.
- A sharp knife is essential – Filleting requires a sharp knife so that the knife does the work without a lot of pressure from you.
- Use a knife that is designed to fillet fish – it should have a firm handle and the blade should be strong but flexible.